St. Olaf Magazine | Summer 2020

Spotlight: Essa Mohamed ’09

The Bush Foundation awards grants to individuals and organizations implementing innovative solutions and projects that shape a better future for their communities. This year, Essa Mohamed, a postdoctoral fellow and adjunct instructor at Mayo Clinic, was one of 24 grant recipients who were selected from Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, and the 23 Native nations that share the same geography, and who demonstrate a strong capacity to lead change.

A pioneer in the research of liver disease and its effects on African and Asian communities, Mohamed is motivated by the loss of several of his own family members to liver disease, a complication of hepatitis. He wants to pursue a career not only as a scientist but also as an advocate for overcoming the ethnic disparity in liver disease cases.

“When I started my Ph.D. at Mayo, I decided to do something a bit different than many of my peers were doing,” says Mohamed, who conducted a study on the prevalence of liver disease in African and Asian people for his degree. “Although I did have basic science-based studies, I wanted to go out to the community and conduct screening for hepatitis B and hepatitis C infections. Through a community screening program, I was able to build rapport and trust with the immigrant African and Asian communities in Rochester, Mankato, Faribault, and the Greater Twin Cities area to ensure this study was a success.”

Mohamed’s research, under the mentorship of Dr. Lewis Roberts, a gastroenterologist and hepatologist and the director of the Neoplasia Clinic, also helped contribute to the World Health Organization’s decision to prioritize hepatitis at a global level and helped Mayo Clinic change its patient screening practices for viral hepatitis.

“My research goal is to build a system in which the participation of women and racial and ethnic minorities in clinical trials and medical device development is increased.”

Working on his Ph.D. study also exposed Mohamed to the overall lack of population diversity in medical research, something he hopes to change. “My research goal is to build a system in which the participation of women and racial and ethnic minorities in clinical trials and medical device development is increased,” Mohamed says. “In order to address the health disparities we see today, we need to start a systemic change into how we collect data that is representative of the patients we are treating and ensuring that treatment modalities are highly effective.”

The Bush Fellowship enables Mohamed to further his goal of reducing disparities in medical research and health care. The grant and resources from the fellowship will allow him to study market evaluation and strategic decision making to better understand how to make changes within the health care system, as well as develop a network of medical industry mentors to support him in his work.

Currently, with the coronavirus pandemic continuing to infect high numbers of people, Mohamed has expanded his research to include several COVID-19 studies focused on sex and racial differences. The first study is looking at the actual prevalence of COVID-19 in the local population of Olmsted County in Southeastern Minnesota and the nine counties nearest to it. He also is involved in conducting several clinical trials to assess whether the medications being used to treat COVID-19 can reduce the length of hospitalization and the severity of the infection once individuals contract the virus.

“The goal is to ensure that adequate resources as well as deliberate and effective measures are taken,” he says. “This requires state, county, and city officials and agencies to work collectively in partnership with the communities they serve. Through this collaboration, we can have the best and most effective change and impact.”

Mohamed credits two St. Olaf professors, Anne Walter and Douglas Beussman, for igniting his passion for biomedical sciences. In addition, his experience with the TRiO McNair Scholars Program, a graduate school preparatory program funded by the U.S. Department of Education and sponsored by St. Olaf, helped him discern the type of work he wanted to do in the biomedical field.

“I was able to see how the scientific process was established and ways we could continue to apply the skills we were taught in our biology and chemistry courses,” Mohamed says of the research he conducted as a McNair Scholar. “This was an instrumental experience that led to my first manuscript publication.” Director of the McNair Scholars Program Janis Johnson and Assistant Director Melissa Hinderscheit ’04 provided him with additional support and even attended his Ph.D. defense. “I was humbled by their presence and support.”

Mohamed continues to benefit from the rigorous education he received at St. Olaf. “Those experiences in difficult classes enabled me to adapt to a fast-paced environment and, regardless of the situation, continue to strive.”

Anna Barnard is majoring in English and religion at St. Olaf.